Man Ray's Dada objects, made in New York before he left for Paris in 1921, are more fantastic than Marcel Duchamp's (1887-1968) assisted ready-mades, although obviously related. Man Ray first me Duchamp in 1915, but they only began to work closely together after the First World War.
The enigma of Isidore Ducasse was assembled in New York in1920. Man Ray wrapped a sewing machine in an army blanket and tied it up with string. Like most of the objects which he made up to the late 1940s it was assembled primarily to provide an unusual subject for a photograph and then discarded.1
The inspiration and the title of this object derive from a famous line in the book Les Chants de Maldoror (1869) by Comte de Lautréamont, the pseudonym adopted by the French poet Isidore Ducasse (1846-70): 'He is fair … as the chance meeting on a dissecting-table of a sewing-machine and an umbrella!'.2 The strange juxtaposition of images in Lautréamont's writings, and especially this image of the sewing-machine, was to become almost a maxim for the Surrealists, who welcomed Man Ray when he arrived in Paris in 1921. His photograph of The Enigma of Isidore Ducasse was reproduced in the preface to the first issue of La Revolution Surréaliste (December 1924), the Surrealists' first major periodical.
In 1971 Galleria Schwarz, Milan, reconstructed The enigma of Isidore Ducasse in an edition of ten under Man Ray's supervision.3 The example in the Australian National Gallery's collection is no. 8 from this edition.
Michael Lloyd & Michael Desmond European and American Paintings and Sculptures 1870-1970 in the Australian National Gallery 1992 p.140.